Exploring Independent Cinema with Graham Nolte & Tommy Stackhouse

Terryl Burke

Having recently premiered their feature-length film Parallax at the NewFilmmakers New York Film Series and the St. Tropez International Film Festival, writer and director Graham Nolte and producer Tommy Stackhouse talk about their beginnings, the realities of navigating a globally-connected market that’s become over-saturated with do-it-yourself filmmakers and how they’ve managed to connect with independent cinema’s fiercely loyal but increasingly demanding audience.
Graham and Tommy describe Parallax as the story of a man attempting to change the way we communicate through technology. Set in 1987, during the primordial days of the internet, computer programmer Abbot Allen creates a mass communication device, and as his network of users grow, he increasingly cuts himself off from those around him.
Culture Trip: What inspired you to make Parallax?

Graham Nolte: A big part of it was that I wanted to make something that said something about where our society is today. A lot of people say write what you know, but I wrote a film about a 40-year-old computer engineer in the eighties who’s going through a divorce. So it was a world that I didn’t know, but what I really related to was the aspect of isolation through technology. And that’s something that I really wanted to express because all of my friends in college were really addicted to Facebook, and to me, for some reason, using Facebook wasn’t a positive experience. I remember seeing pictures of people going to places like Greece or friends all hanging out, and it was like everyone everywhere was having a great time and I was too, but I wasn’t having it with them. It had nothing to do with me, and it was so interesting how I felt compared to what those people made it seem like. Like they were saying, ‘Look how great this technology is,’ and I was saying, ‘Well there are some things about it that I find isolating.’ And not just Facebook, but all technology. Even more so now that the internet has become so commercialized and we’re so connected to it and communicating with it to the degree that we are.

CT: With shows like Silicon Valley and Halt and Catch Fire finding widespread acclaim and popularity, it seems like audiences are really responding to projects that explore how internet-based technology has shaped our lives. How big a part did the success of that genre play in your decision to make Parallax?

GN: That’s a really interesting question, because those shows came out relatively recently and I started writing Parallax five years ago. So it didn’t really. But The Social Network was out then and I remember thinking, ‘Oh wow. I love David Fincher. And how topical.’ But I didn’t want to be so blunt about it and just make a movie about Facebook. So I set it in the early days of the internet to sort of disassociate it from that. But people sort of responded to how the technology in the film relates to them now, and I can’t really seem to get away from it.

CT: One of the key themes in Parallax is that a technologically-aided global connectedness seems to somewhat ironically produce an isolating effect on the people it connects. As the film industry tries to keep up with that shift, how does it help or hinder its independent scene?

GN: Yeah, and it definitely hasn’t been all bad. There have been a multitude of effects and that’s really what I wanted to explore in Parallax. A lot of the characters make [it] out in the end, and the technology works out well for them. And that was just as important for me to explore as well because it doesn’t really isolate anyone in the film community. I mean, maybe some people are watching movies at home instead of going out to the theaters, but I think it’s kind of amazing that our film is being seen by people all over the world because of that technology.

Without the technology of the internet or Withoutabox or Facebook, we wouldn’t have been able to promote our film to the degree that we have. I wasn’t even on Facebook for like four years, and I got back on it to promote the film. So look at the hypocrite I am by doing that. But that’s what the term parallax means: to look at the same thing from different angles and get something else from it. So that’s what I tried to do. And I think that there are many different ways, both positive and negative, that it can affect people. And for the independent film scene, it’s not isolating at all. It’s given people careers and opportunities that they never would have had otherwise.
CT: Were you able to take advantage of that while you were making Parallax?

GN: Absolutely. We did a lot of the post-production on this project remotely. Our editor was in Arizona and Los Angeles, and our colorist was in New York and New Jersey, and our visual effects team was in Texas and San Francisco. And for a year, we were working with a team in Serbia who I never really spoke to personally. But for a year I’m writing emails like, ‘Hey, change frame 296 to 877.’ And we approached companies in Hollywood and New York who quoted us like ten times the amount and even though they might have worked on Harry Potter, we didn’t have ten times the amount. So we went with the team in Serbia. And really the only reason Parallax even exists is because of the internet and that kind of technology.

CT: Abbot, the main character in Parallax, becomes increasingly detached as he focuses more and more energy on his project, and there are a lot of parallels between his story and the somewhat alienating journey aspiring filmmakers often face. Is this something you included intentionally?

GN: Yeah. And it’s not something that just applies to aspiring filmmakers, either. It’s people who are going to nursing school, or who work in a hospice that are constantly interacting with their patients but are cut off from other people. That’s something that a lot of people who have seen the movie in theaters have related to. Trying to pursue something to such an extent that you don’t see anything around you. Like you’ve got blinders on. And it’s definitely a reflection of my personality as well. I get so invested in relationships or projects that it’s hard to see anything else. But I hadn’t really made anything as big or as intensive as Parallax, that really would have isolated me to that degree. When I was in post-production, I was like, ‘How ironic. Now I’m experiencing the same kind of isolation I was trying to produce in the film.’

CT: You began your journey by making short films. Did you always view those projects as a means to an end? And at what point did you decide to make the leap from short films to feature films?

GN: Well actually, Tommy and I made two feature-length films in high school. I mean, they’re real movies and you can watch them, but you’d be like: ‘This is juvenile.’ But they were really big hits in our hometown, and I can still go to bars there and people I’ve never seen before will know my name. It was really cool because I’ve always been interested in putting a lot of effort into a single project and turning that into tangible results that people can watch. But in film school, you don’t really have time to do it. And as soon as we got out, literally the day after my last class, we went out and shot a feature length documentary. So it was, like, right back to it. And then we did a bunch of shorts after that. Then we wanted to make Parallax after that, and now we want to make another one. So yeah, for most people shorts are just a way to get to features. But for me there’s always been such an allure to using the power and strength of the medium to say something worthwhile that’s it’s been a huge draw my whole life, regardless of length.

CT: How do you keep the project’s momentum, and what do you do now?

Tommy Stackhouse: So at this point, the realization that we’re having, and I’m sure that other filmmakers are realizing the same thing, is that in order for your project to really be seen, you have to take a lot more initiative than people have had to in the past. There are a lot more films being made today than ever before and because of that, the market’s become sort of over-saturated. And so what it really takes for a filmmaker to get their film noticed is, and I hate to say it like this, but you almost have to give the audience something more than the film itself. You want to give the audience the entire package.

You want them to say ‘The film was great, the experience was great, and I want to be a bigger part of it.’ And so what we’re doing right now is we’re continually building our audience with these screenings. And basically we want to just host more and more of them to keeping building it up. And it’s worked for us so far, because as we hold more and more of them, we really start to see and define who our target audience is. And basically between the screenings and the festivals and the press, it just adds to the total experience that we’re packaging. Because the goal is to really get people to feel like they’re a part of it. That they didn’t just go and see a movie, that they went and were part of this project that’s on a really good run, and now they’re wondering what comes next.

GN: And a lot of that comes down to connecting with the audience. So we film these events, and we like to ask people what they thought of the film. And you can really see them connecting with the experience as they’re describing aspects of the film. They’re excited about it. So we put these videos out and that becomes a part of the package that they’re experiencing and they’re a part of, and it’s growing. Then you have people sharing their experience of watching the film, and that becomes an experience in and of itself, and that’s where we’re trying to go with it. Just connecting to the audience, and hopefully bringing that package to some distributors who will want to continue that momentum and get it to more people.
Graham and Tommy are currently continuing their festival run, setting up screenings across the East and West coasts and preparing a Blu-Ray and DVD release of the film. For more information about Parallax, visit the film’s website.
By Terryl Burke

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